Arrested in Africa: An exploration of the issues

Recent research and advocacy efforts have drawn attention to the excessive use of and prolonged pre-trial detention in Africa. At any given moment there are roughly 1 million people in Africa’s prisons. Far more move through prisons each year. Their stay in prison, regardless of duration, starts with being arrested. Substantially more people are arrested than those who end up in prison for pre-trial detention. Pre-trial detention figures are thus a poor indicator of contact with the criminal justice system. The purpose of arrest and subsequent detention of a suspect is essentially to ensure the attendance of the person in court or for another just cause. The police’s powers of arrest are, in theory, curtailed to the extent that the arresting officer must be able to provide reasons for the arrest and continued police detention. Police officials have considerable discretion in executing arrests, especially when arresting without a warrant. This exploratory report focuses on arresting without a warrant and starts off with setting out the legal requirements in this regard by way of a case study. In order to understand current arrest practices, the report provides a brief description of the history of policing in Africa and concludes that much of what was established by the colonial powers has remained intact, emphasising high arrest rates, a social disciplinarian mode of policing, supported by myriad petty offences that justify arrest without a warrant. This combination enables widespread corruption and results in negative perceptions of the police. The report further argues that given the wide discretionary powers of the police to arrest without a warrant, it follows that not all people are at an equal risk of arrest, but rather that it is the poor, powerless and out-groups that are at a higher risk of arrest based on non-judicial factors. The report concludes with a number of recommendations calling for further research, decriminalisation of certain offences and restructuring of the police in African countries.

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